Health experts and advocates on Tuesday called on the federal government to create a national media campaign to counter false claims about vaccine safety that have been blamed for a rise in parents opting to not vaccinate their children.
As Washington battles a measles outbreak that has affected at least 71 people as of Monday, the state has struggled to communicate with people who are skeptical of vaccines, according to state health secretary John Wiesman.
Washington's immunization coverage rate among kindergarten-age children is around 90%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's one of the lowest across the country and below the 95% coverage rate experts believe is needed to maintain herd immunity.
"Vaccine programs are one of public health's greatest accomplishments," Wiesman told the Senate health committee Tuesday."They are under great threat and we need to reverse course."
Wiesman suggested ads similar to the "Truth" campaign launched in 1998 against smoking could help counter anti-vaccine messaging. That campaign is credited with helping to decrease tobacco use among teens.
So far, the outbreak has cost Washington more than $1 million, Wiesman said.
None of the senators who attended Wednesday's hearing expressed support or opposition to the idea of a national media campaign.
Ohio teenager Ethan Lindenberger also supported the ad campaign proposal. He gained attention for asking Reddit in November how to get vaccinated, noting his mother believes vaccines cause severe health side effects.
The 18-year-old said he believes anecdotal stories have contributed to the anti-vaccine fervor, and sharing experiences about vaccine-preventable diseases could resonate better than evidence-based campaigns.
"When you convince parents not that their information is incorrect but that their children are at risk that is a much more substantial way to cause people to change their minds," Lindenberger said.
Still, some senators voiced concern over increasing vaccine coverage. While Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) supports vaccines, he argued that individuals had the right to choose to get vaccinated without government mandates.
"For myself and my children I believe that the benefits of vaccines greatly outweigh the risks," Paul said. "But I do not favor on giving up on liberty for a false sense of security."
While Paul's remarks generated some audience applause, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) noted vaccine requirements only apply to children entering school, and exercising individual liberty should not come at the expense of the health of others.
"Now if you're such a believer in liberty that you do not wish to be vaccinated then there should be a consequence and that is you cannot infect other people," Cassidy said.
All states require children to get an MMR vaccination prior to entering kindergarten. Seventeen states allow parents to opt out of vaccinating their children based on philosophical grounds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and all but three—California, Mississippi and West Virginia—allow a child to be exempt from immunization for religious reasons.
But some states, including Washington and Oregon, have considered implementing stricter requirements for vaccinations in light of the current outbreaks.
All in all, more than 200 people in 11 states have been infected with measles this year.